Community members speak out against cuts to English Language Learner program in Montclair schools
For Anyelid Moncada-Medina, a Montclair High School English as a Second Language student, adapting to school in Montclair was extremely difficult. She even considered dropping out, feeling defeated when she was unable to understand what her teachers were saying in class.
In a press release compiled by the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, the Refugee Resettlement Association, the Montclair Community Development Corporation, former Montclair principal Michael Chiles and the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence calling out the Montclair school district for failing to meet the needs of its immigrant students, Moncada-Medina shared part of her story.
When she immigrated in September 2021, Moncada-Medina was already behind grade level— she wasn’t in school for a few years before coming to the United States because remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic did not exist in her country.
“It doesn’t feel good to sit in every class feeling like you don’t belong, and you can’t even begin to learn what everyone else is learning because you can’t understand it,” Moncada-Medina said.
Moncada-Medina is just one of about 100 English Language Learners (ELLs) enrolled in the Montclair school district, according to the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence. The Fund is a local nonprofit that works closely with ELL student populations and the school district, particularly through its Navegadores Escolares program, which works to to support ELL students and their families.
Over the past five years, the ELL population has tripled — in 2017, the Montclair district served only 31 students classified as ELL, according to figures provided by the district to the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence and previously shared with Montclair Local. Most ELL students are Latinx, and Spanish is their primary language.
But as the number of ELL students continues to increase, local immigrant support organizations, educators and other stakeholders say the district is not doing enough to support them, particularly evident in recent staff cuts.
In May, the Montclair school district issued 83 non-renewal notices — 35 went to teachers and another 48 paraprofessionals were told they did not have a job for the 2022-23 school year. As of July 11, 21 teachers and 23 paraprofessionals had been rehired, according to Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck.
But three of the nonrenewed staff members who have not yet been hired back for the 2022-23 school year are bilingual instructors — Spanish and English speakers — who work closely with immigrant and ELL students, according to Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Education Excellence.
The nonrenewed staff members include a bilingual curriculum support teacher at Northeast School — the only bilingual curriculum support teacher in the district — and two bilingual paraprofessionals at Edgemont School, Rodriquez-Vars told Montclair Local. A monolingual curriculum support staff member at Northeast had also been nonrenewed in May, but her contract has since been renewed, Rodriquez-Vars said.
The Edgemont instructors provided in-class support to the school’s 25 ELL students, and one was assigned to a bilingual special education student per the child’s individualized education plan, according to the release.
“We call on school leaders to acknowledge the inequities experienced by our ELL students and invest in these children, too,” Rodriquez-Vars said in the press release.
ELL students must attend a school with an ELL program unless a parent specifically requests otherwise, according to Rodriquez-Vars. The programs exist at Northeast, Edgemont, Nishuane School, Buzz Aldrin Middle School and Montclair High School.
Montclair High nurse Patricia Feely said she sees the pain, stress and trauma that immigrant children face every day. She also volunteers with the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance and the Refugee Resettlement Group.
“Sadly the stress isn’t just what they have fled, or the dangerous conditions and trauma of their journey north,” Feely said in the release. “It is their lack of rights when they arrive and the stressors of a school system that is not prepared, trained or appropriately staffed to deal with these most vulnerable children and youth.”
On Friday, July 22, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local the district had a plan to meet the needs of its ELL students.
“We are an inclusive district,” Ponds said.
He has not yet responded to a follow-up email asking for details of the plan.
For Michael Chiles, a former Hillside School principal and former interim Edgemont principal, leading Edgemont taught him about the inequity that ELL students face in the Montclair public schools, according to the release.
Chiles and other community members have tried to work with district leadership for months for support for ELL students, but the administration has “simply ignored this issue while the situation deteriorates,” Chiles said in the release.
“I see the treatment of these Latino families as the civil rights issue of our time,” Chiles said in the release. “We are treating these children as second class citizens in our schools.”
In the release, Chiles said he was particularly upset that the bilingual curriculum support teacher at Northeast, who had worked in the district since 2019, had been dismissed, while the monolingual curriculum support teacher who was hired last November was offered a contract.
“Why would you cut the teacher who can communicate directly with students, who has the unique expertise of navigating the gray area between language challenges and learning differences, and who was specifically hired to serve our growing ELL population?” Chiles asked in the release.
In discussions of the nonrenewals at board meetings, Ponds has reiterated that the cuts will not affect programming for students. But that is not true, Maelle Fonteneau, an Edgemont parent who works with ELL families through MFEE, said in the release.
“The district has said that staff cuts won’t affect programs, but without these bilingual professionals, our ELL students can’t access the curriculum — and that’s the fundamental ‘program’ that public schools offer,” Fonteneau said.
Matilda Carvajal, a local attorney and volunteer who works with immigrant families, said in the release that “it appears” the Montclair Board of Education is out of compliance with the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974, which requires the district to take action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students.
“I believe an audit/investigation of the district’s program for ELL students would reveal that the district does not communicate effectively with ELL students’ parents, fails to have sufficient bilingual staff to provide critical services to its ELL students and does not properly evaluate its ELL programming for effectiveness,” Carvajal said in the release.
Students and parents plan to speak about ELL students and the nonrenewed staff members at the Monday, July 25 Montclair Board of Education meeting, Rodriquez-Vars told Montclair Local.
Correction: A previous version of this story quoted Matilda Carvajal saying the recent staff cuts would bring the Montclair Board of Education out of compliance with the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974.